Today, a wander around the museums and galleries of the Albert Dock, on an investigation into what the city of Liverpool is saying about itself on the eve of the Capital of Culture year.
The Maritime Museum has a new exhibition about the city’s history and it says all of the things which the canon historians of Liverpool have already sanctioned. This allows for a small amount of conflict here and there: representations of different sides in the antislavery debate; a brief display given over to workers’ disputes and the role of Militant politics in the 1980s; and (the highlight of the whole thing for me) a video ‘conversation’ between Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby, William Moore, businessman and Mayor, and Thomas Ansloe, ‘commoner’, which is set in their era (16th Century) and based loosely on the famous ‘I look down on him...’ Two Ronnies sketch.
This is illustrative, rather than illuminating, like much of the other material on show. And of course the Magical History Tour exhibition fails to tell much of this history from the ‘underside’. I want to see it acknowledge some of the mess and the clamour which has built Liverpool (and at times almost destroyed it), to let visitors feel the tension and the anger and the shame and the tears which our filmmakers, dramatists, musicians - and in-your-face citizens - have expressed so well over the years. I’m left a bit cold by this effort.
But maybe that’s because there’s more deeply personal stuff going on for me here. Nearby the history exhibition is a display describing the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Again it reiterates the sanctioned, canonical version of the story, which fails to dig too deep into the complicity of The Admiralty and its first Lord, Winston Churchill, in the loss of hundreds of lives, an act which (some would say knowingly) would bring the United States into the First World War. I get emotional about that because John Davies, my great-grandfather, was on that ship that day - one of the many crew members from North Liverpool - and though he survived the ordeal, the trauma of it never left him.
Like those who still fume about the whitewash of the Hillsborough investigations, like visiting Italians who must be shocked at our city’s almost total erasure of Heysel from our accounts of recent history, I get angered that the ship’s captain Turner was scapegoated for the loss of the Lusitania while the state and Churchill in particular escaped any censure. I didn’t get angry like this in the museums of Warrington or Rochdale. Guess that’s another sign that I’m home.
Over at The Tate there is the jollity of a little manufactured conflict, as the annual media commotion The Turner Prize comes to town. This is to be welcomed: I don’t think it’s ever been out of London before and this affirms Liverpool’s provincial pre-eminence when it comes to the arts. Four artists are shortlisted and on display, and as with most conceptual art there’s much in their work which the many visitors didn’t ‘get’. We do get the chance to have our say at the end, and on my paper I voted for Mark Wallinger, for his work called State Britain, a precise reconstruction of Brian Haw’s anti-Iraq war protest which Wallinger installed at Tate Britain months after police had cleared Haw and his placards from opposite the Palace of Westminster. Brian Haw had been there for five years prior to the passing of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which outlaws protest within a 1 km radius of Parliament Square without prior police permission.
Two things I didn’t know before about this protest-project: that the 1 km exclusion zone partly bisects Tate Britain, which added an extra edge to Wallinger’s display there [critiqued by the Stuckists here]; and that Brian Haw, by the grace of God and the Metropolitan Police, has been permitted to occupy a space on the pavement outside Parliament measuring three metres by two, in which he sits and continues his protest.
After all my wanderings in strange towns I relate to Haw the maverick outsider. With my surprising seething, random, anger on my return home I relate all the more (though his anger is focussed and righteous and to be affirmed). And all this adds up to overwhelming reasons for me voting for Mark Wallinger, whose work has often dealt with the confused human blundering through matters of life, identity, belief, conviction and faith.